This is a longer version of the comment that appears in this week's print edition.
The September 11 attacks spread their pall over the AFL-CIO convention in early December as union representatives touchingly remembered the dead–including more than 700 union members–and honored the everyday heroism of workers like firefighters, ironworkers and nurses. But unions also confronted the political fallout of the terror attacks, which undermined major globalization protests, dampened a new antisweatshop campaign, chilled labor's crusade for immigration reform and gave Bush new clout, which he used to eke out a one-vote House passage of fast-track trade-promotion authority that labor strongly opposed. The attacks also deepened the recession, thus making collective bargaining tougher and shrinking union treasuries.
The low-key mood at the Las Vegas gathering obscured the determination of the labor movement to fight vigorously on its major campaigns, not simply to play defense or hunker down and hope as many unions did in the 1980s. Delegates thunderously pounded their tables in approval as AFL-CIO president John Sweeney condemned Bush and "his corporate backers [for] waging a vicious war on working families." Firefighters president Harold Schaitberger similarly warned politicians, "We don't want homilies. We want healthcare for every worker."
While supporting the war against terrorists, the AFL-CIO strongly attacked the Bush Administration's antiterrorism measures for threatening civil liberties with only one dissenting voice in the executive council. Union leaders showed little enthusiasm for the war despite their statements of support, and there were indications that labor would not uniformly, if at all, back extension of the war. "Catching and dealing with bin Laden and Al Qaeda is one thing," UNITE (clothing and textile workers) president Bruce Raynor said. "Waging war on lots of other countries is another."
While labor grieved, corporate America attacked workers with plant closings, layoffs and pursuit of legislative favors in Washington, Raynor said, but now unions must "be more aggressive than ever" in organizing and mobilizing public sentiment against the "deceit" and "hypocrisy" of big business and the White House. The minority of unions that have been organizing–with recent large-scale successes among workers ranging from janitors and homecare workers to graduate teaching assistants, nurses and engineers–plan to continue, even intensify, their organizing campaigns. "We don't believe the recession will have any substantive negative impact on organizing," argued Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, which since 1998 has doubled its spending on organizing and quadrupled newly organized public service workers to roughly 50,000 this year. The AFL-CIO now is concentrating on helping unions that haven't seriously pursued organizing opportunities in their industries. For example, the Teamsters, who have had few organizing successes recently, announced a new pact with longshore unions to organize 50,000 truckers at the nation's ports.